In American sports, pundits and journalists throw around the phrase “trap game” when describing a game that would be looked over in anticipation of more important matters in the immediate future. With a pivotal UEFA Champions League fixture with Inter Milan on Tuesday and El Clásico on Sunday against Real Madrid, it would be human nature to suggest that Barcelona would somewhat neglect their due diligence and not focus solely on their match against Athletic Bilbao. Although the 1-1 final at San Mamés may intimate a supposed lack of focus, it is part of a plateau trend since Valencia outplayed them in mid-October.
Excluding their home and away legs with Segunda División B side Cultural Leonesa in the Copa del Rey, Barcelona has only won twice in their last seven matches in all competitions. They only lost once in that stretch, an inconceivable 1-2 result at the Camp Nou by the hands of Rubin Kazan, but heading into the defining week of their campaign up to this point, Barcelona needs to stem this mediocre tide in order to achieve their desired results against Inter Milan and Real Madrid.
In Barcelona’s two wins against Real Zaragoza and Mallorca, they capitalized on their numerous chances within the first half hour to seize the match by the throat and force the opposition to come forward. Both Real Zaragoza and Mallorca played into the hands of Barcelona and tried to play open and expansive football only to see Barcelona break them on the counter-attack. To say that a team needs to score early to demoralize the opposition is an obvious observation, but in Barcelona’s case, when they score that early goal, the dam breaks apart. Scoring six against Zaragoza and four against Mallorca proves this point. Another common thread with their two wins is the comfort of playing in front of their Blaugrana faithful at the Camp Nou. Again, another unequivocal truth: a team usually plays better at home. In La Liga, Barcelona has a 100% record at home, scoring nineteen while surrendering only five in five matches.
Their one loss to Rubin Kazan did come at home, but that match was an aberration compared to the rest of their matches in this seven game sample. In the opening minutes, Aleksandr Ryazantsev’s audacious and prodigious effort from nearly forty yards sent shock waves throughout Europe. After Zlatan Ibrahimovic responded with an equalizer early in the second half, order seemed to be restored in the universe, but when Rubin Kazan broke on the counter-attack and Gökdeniz Karadeniz converted his one opportunity, suddenly the champions looked vulnerable for the first time.
The one trait that Rubin Kazan possessed and no other opponent of Barcelona will live up to this season was their sheer physicality. One of the few ways to frustrate the orchestra is to close down their space in a robust manner. Evidenced by this match and the first leg of the UEFA Champions League semifinal against Chelsea last season, mucking their flow is an effective tactic if otherwise unaesthetically pleasing.
Barcelona’s four draws to Valencia, Rubin Kazan away, Osasuna, and Athletic Bilbao are results of two intertwining factors. It is no coincidence that all of these results occurred away from home. Despite playing at home, Barcelona’s opposition proceeded with an away team train of thought: break forward when the situation presents itself but otherwise soak up the Catalan pressure. Because of this mentality, the cutting edge needed to unlock the defense has been blunted ever so slightly.
Thierry Henry has missed more than half of Barcelona’s matches, but Pedro Rodríguez shifted into his position quite nicely, learning on the job while taking the lessons from his Barcelona academy days, both under Pep Guardiola. Three of the top five contenders for the Pichichi Trophy as top scorer in La Liga currently play for Barcelona (Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Seydou Keita), and they lead La Liga with twenty-nine goals through eleven matches. Barcelona creates more goal-scoring opportunities than any other team in La Liga, and they spend a vast majority of the time in the opposition half, but they have squandered many of these chances. It gives their opponents an extra boost of confidence when they are able to keep them out of the back of net, whether it was because of their own defense or Barcelona’s poor finishing.
This mediocre stretch is analogous to a string of matches last season in February and March, where they lost the Catalan derby to struggling Espanyol and did not win in five consecutive matches in all competitions. The rest is history for that campaign, as Barça earned an unprecedented treble. Although the derby match with Real Madrid will grab most of the headlines this week, there will be another twenty-six rounds of football to decide the champion of Spain. There is a distinct possibility that Rubin Kazan will knock Barcelona out of the Champions League competition if they lose to Inter Milan on Tuesday.
Both these teams will know their fate before they kickoff as Rubin Kazan hosts Dynamo Kyiv two hours before the rest of Tuesday’s action. If Rubin Kazan defeats Dynamo Kyiv and Inter Milan defeats Barcelona at the Camp Nou, Barcelona can finish no higher than third in the group because Rubin has the tiebreaker edge over Barcelona. When they faced potential elimination in the Champions League last season, they rose to the occasion and passed every test. Inter Milan’s defense is the best that Barcelona has seen this season, so fashioning that opening goal is paramount. If Barcelona defeats Internazionale Milano and rises to a top two spot in Group F, that momentum will carry over to El Clásico on Sunday and renew this team with a sense of vitality, vigor, and vivacity that has slowed to this point.